Martin Morat: The internationalist at a time of war

Author: 
Micheál MacEoin

Martin Morat, also known as Paul Widelin, was a German-born Trotskyist who spearheaded efforts to form revolutionary cells within Nazi-occupied Belgium by fraternising with German soldiers.

Widelin was born in Germany in 1913 and became an activist at the age of 15 in Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth movement. As a Jew and a sympathiser with the German Communist Party, Widelin was an obvious target for the Gestapo after the Nazis came to power in Germany. He emigrated to Belgium.

In Belgium he was won over to Trotskyism. He soon became a member of the European Executive Committee of the Trotskyists’ international organisation (the Fourth International).

When the war broke out he took on special responsibility for organising fraternisation between French and Belgian workers and the occupying Nazi forces. In May 1943, Widelin was sent to work with the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste in Paris and also led the German Trotskyist group in the French capital.

By and large, social democrats and, following the German occupation of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Stalinists, took the view that the Second World War was a struggle between the forces of “democracy” and fascism. Accordingly, the French Communist Party (PCF) denounced all German soldiers as Nazis and sanctioned acts of terrorism against individual members of the German army. The Trotskyists’ policy, by contrast, saw the war as a clash between rival imperialisms.

As George Breitman, writing in the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) paper, Militant, wrote: “They did not unite with the agents of Allied capitalism around the nationalist slogan of ‘Death to the Boche!’ — as the Stalinists and ‘Socialists’ did. On the contrary, Widelin and his co-workers in all countries sought to unite the masses of the occupied countries with the German soldiers in the occupying armies in a joint struggle against their common oppressors. Fraternisation was their method, for they knew that only through fraternisation could the struggle against Hitlerism have a successful revolutionary outcome. As a consequence, the Gestapo placed a higher price on the head of Widelin than it did on many an Allied general.”

Widelin produced a special newspaper, Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), aimed at German soldiers. According to Breitman, “to be caught with a copy of this paper meant horrible torture and certain death. Yet it circulated from France, where it was printed in the underground, all the way back through Belgium into Germany itself… Copies made their way to the distant German garrisons in Italy.”

The paper began to appear in July 1943 and, although temporarily suppressed by the Gestapo, re-appeared again for a few months after April 1944 as an organ of the German section of the Fourth International.

Widelin helped create a cell of German soldiers in Brest. So worried were the Nazi authorities that when the Gestapo discovered a meeting of the cell in 1943, seventeen German soldiers and a French Trotskyist, Robert Cruau, were shot.

In July 1944 Widelin, along with a comrade, Marguerite Baget, was arrested by the French Special Brigades, the collaborationist police force responsible for tracking down “internal enemies”. After being tortured, he was handed over to the Gestapo and murdered on 22 July.

In a testament to his internationalism, and that of the Trotskyist movement during the war, Baget wrote in 1946: “What a symbol — the German Widelin tortured and killed by the French-German Gestapo.”